The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion

The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion

by Peter L. Berger


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385073059
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/28/1990
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 366,127
Product dimensions: 5.17(w) x 7.98(h) x 0.55(d)

About the Author

PETER L. BERGER is University Professor and Director of the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University. He is the author of, among other books, Invitation to Sociology, The Social Construction of Reality, and The Capitalist Revolution. 

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Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion

By Peter L. Berger


Copyright © 1967 Peter L. Berger
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-1537-1


Religion and World-Construction

Every human society is an enterprise of world-building. Religion occupies a distinctive place in this enterprise. Our main purpose here is to make some general statements about the relationship between human religion and human world-building. Before this can be done intelligibly, however, the above statement about the world-building efficacy of society must be explicated. For this explication it will be important to understand society in dialectic terms.

Society is a dialectic phenomenon in that it is a human product, and nothing but a human product, that yet continuously acts back upon its producer. Society is a product of man. It has no other being except that which is bestowed upon it by human activity and consciousness. There can be no social reality apart from man. Yet it may also be stated that man is a product of society. Every individual biography is an episode within the history of society, which both precedes and survives it. Society was there before the individual was born and it will be there after he has died. What is more, it is within society, and as a result of social processes, that the individual becomes a person, that he attains and holds onto an identity, and that he carries out the various projects that constitute his life. Man cannot exist apart from society. The two statements, that society is the product of man and that man is the product of society, are not contradictory. They rather reflect the inherently dialectic character of the societal phenomenon. Only if this character is recognized will society be understood in terms that are adequate to its empirical reality.

The fundamental dialectic process of society consists of three moments, or steps. These are externalization, objectivation, and internalization. Only if these three moments are understood together can an empirically adequate view of society be maintained. Externalization is the ongoing outpouring of human being into the world, both in the physical and the mental activity of men. Objectivation is the attainment by the products of this activity (again both physical and mental) of a reality that confronts its original producers as a facticity external to and other than themselves. Internalization is the reappropriation by men of this same reality, transforming it once again from structures of the objective world into structures of the subjective consciousness. It is through externalization that society is a human product. It is through objectivation that society becomes a reality sui generis. It is through internalization that man is a product of society.

Externalization is an anthropological necessity. Man, as we know him empirically, cannot be conceived of apart from the continuous outpouring of himself into the world in which he finds himself. Human being cannot be understood as somehow resting within itself, in some closed sphere of interiority, and then setting out to express itself in the surrounding world. Human being is externalizing in its essence and from the beginning. This anthropological root fact is very probably grounded in the biological constitution of man. Homo sapiens occupies a peculiar position in the animal kingdom. This peculiarity manifests itself in man's relationship both to his own body and to the world. Unlike the other higher mammals, who are born with an essentially completed organism, man is curiously "unfinished" at birth. Essential steps in the process of "finishing" man's development, which have already taken place in the foetal period for the other higher mammals, occur in the first year after birth in the case of man. That is, the biological process of "becoming man" occurs at a time when the human infant is in interaction with an extra-organismic environment, which includes both the physical and the human world of the infant. There is thus a biological foundation to the process of "becoming man" in the sense of developing personality and appropriating culture. The latter developments are not somehow superimposed as alien mutations upon the biological development of man, but they are grounded in it.

The "unfinished" character of the human organism at birth is closely related to the relatively unspecialized character of its instinctual structure. The non-human animal enters the world with highly specialized and firmly directed drives. As a result, it lives in a world that is more or less completely determined by its instinctual structure. This world is closed in terms of its possibilities, programmed, as it were, by the animal's own constitution. Consequently, each animal lives in an environment that is specific to its particular species. There is a mouse-world, a dog-world, a horse-world, and so forth. By contrast, man's instinctual structure at birth is both underspecialized and undirected toward a species-specific environment. There is no man-world in the above sense. Man's world is imperfectly programmed by his own constitution. It is an open world. That is, it is a world that must be fashioned by man's own activity. Compared with the other higher mammals, man thus has a double relationship to the world. Like the other mammals, man is in a world that antedates his appearance. But unlike the other mammals, this world is not simply given, prefabricated for him. Man must make a world for himself. The world-building activity of man, therefore, is not a biologically extraneous phenomenon, but the direct consequence of man's biological constitution.

The condition of the human organism in the world is thus characterized by a built-in instability. Man does not have a given relationship to the world. He must ongoingly establish a relationship with it. The same instability marks man's relationship to his own body. In a curious way, man is "out of balance" with himself. He cannot rest within himself, but must continuously come to terms with himself by expressing himself in activity. Human existence is an ongoing "balancing act" between man and his body, man and his world. One may put this differently by saying that man is constantly in the process of "catching up with himself." It is in this process that man produces a world. Only in such a world produced by himself can he locate himself and realize his life. But the same process that builds his world also "finishes" his own being. In other words, man not only produces a world, but he also produces himself. More precisely, he produces himself in a world.

In the process of world-building, man, by his own activity, specializes his drives and provides stability for himself. Biologically deprived of a man-world, he constructs a human world. This world, of course, is culture. Its fundamental purpose is to provide the firm structures for human life that are lacking biologically. It follows that these humanly produced structures can never have the stability that marks the structures of the animal world. Culture, although it becomes for man a "second nature," remains something quite different from nature precisely because it is the product of man's own activity. Culture must be continuously produced and reproduced by man. Its structures are, therefore, inherently precarious and predestined to change. The cultural imperative of stability and the inherent character of culture as unstable together posit the fundamental problem of man's world-building activity. Its far-reaching implications will occupy us in considerable detail a little further on. For the moment, suffice it to say that, while it is necessary that worlds be built, it is quite difficult to keep them going.

Culture consists of the totality of man's products. Some of these are material, others are not. Man produces tools of every conceivable kind, by means of which he modifies his physical environment and bends nature to his will. Man also produces language and, on its foundation and by means of it, a towering edifice of symbols that permeate every aspect of his life. There is good reason for thinking that the production of non-material culture has always gone hand in hand with man's activity of physically modifying his environment. Be this as it may, society is, of course, nothing but part and parcel of non-material culture. Society is that aspect of the latter that structures man's ongoing relations with his fellowmen. As but an element of culture, society fully shares in the latter's character as a human product. Society is constituted and maintained by acting human beings. It has no being, no reality, apart from this activity. Its patterns, always relative in time and space, are not given in nature, nor can they be deduced in any specific manner from the "nature of man." If one wants to use such a term as designating more than certain biological constants, one can only say that it is the "nature of man" to produce a world. What appears at any particular historical moment as "human nature" is itself a product of man's world-building activity.

However, while society appears as but an aspect of culture, it occupies a privileged position among man's cultural formations. This is due to yet another basic anthropological fact, namely the essential sociality of man. Homo sapiens is the social animal. This means very much more than the surface fact that man always lives in collectivities and, indeed, loses his humanity when he is thrust into isolation from other men. Much more importantly, the world-building activity of man is always and inevitably a collective enterprise. While it may be possible, perhaps for heuristic purposes, to analyze man's relationship to his world in purely individual terms, the empirical reality of human world-building is always a social one. Men together shape tools, invent languages, adhere to values, devise institutions, and so on. Not only is the individual's participation in a culture contingent upon a social process (namely, the process called socialization), but his continuing cultural existence depends upon the maintenance of specific social arrangements. Society, therefore, is not only an outcome of culture, but a necessary condition of the latter. Society structures, distributes, and co-ordinates the world-building activities of men. And only in society can the products of those activities persist over time.

The understanding of society as rooted in man's externalization, that is, as a product of human activity, is particularly important in view of the fact that society appears to commonsense as something quite different, as independent of human activity and as sharing in the inert givenness of nature. We shall turn in a moment to the process of objectivation that makes this appearance possible. Suffice it to say here that one of the most important gains of a sociological perspective is its reiterated reduction of the hypostatized entities that make up society in the imagination of the man in the street to the human activity of which these entities are products and without which they have no status in reality. The "stuff" out of which society and all its formations are made is human meanings externalized in human activity. The great societal hypostases (such as "the family," "the economy," "the state," and so forth) are over again reduced by sociological analysis to the human activity that is their only underlying substance. For this reason it is very unhelpful if the sociologist, except for heuristic purposes, deals with such social phenomena as if they were, in actual fact, hypostases independent of the human enterprise that originally produced them and keeps on producing them. There is nothing wrong, in itself, with the sociologist's speaking of institutions, structures, functions, patterns, and so on. The harm comes only when he thinks of these, like the man in the street, as entities existing in and of themselves, detached from human activity and production. One of the merits of the concept of externalization, as applied to society, is the prevention of this sort of static, hypostatizing thinking. Another way of putting this is to say that sociological understanding ought always to be humanizing, that is, ought to refer back the imposing configurations of social structure to the living human beings who have created them.

Society, then, is a product of man, rooted in the phenomenon of externalization, which in turn is grounded in the very biological constitution of man. As soon as one speaks of externalized products, however, one is implying that the latter attain a degree of distinctiveness as against their producer. This transformation of man's products into a world that not only derives from man, but that comes to confront him as a facticity outside of himself, is intended in the concept of objectivation. The humanly produced world becomes something "out there." It consists of objects, both material and non-material, that are capable of resisting the desires of their producer. Once produced, this world cannot simply be wished away. Although all culture originates and is rooted in the subjective consciousness of human beings, once formed it cannot be reabsorbed into consciousness at will. It stands outside the subjectivity of the individual as, indeed, a world. In other words, the humanly produced world attains the character of objective reality.

This acquired objectivity of man's cultural products pertains both to the material and the non-material ones. It can readily be understood in the case of the former. Man manufactures a tool and by that action enriches the totality of physical objects present in the world. Once produced, the tool has a being of its own that cannot be readily changed by those who employ it. Indeed, the tool (say, an agricultural implement) may even enforce the logic of its being upon its users, sometimes in a way that may not be particularly agreeable to them. For instance, a plow, though obviously a human product, is an external object not only in the sense that its users may fall over it and hurt themselves as a result, just as they may by falling over a rock or a stump or any other natural object. More interestingly, the plow may compel its users to arrange their agricultural activity, and perhaps also other aspects of their lives, in a way that conforms to its own logic and that may have been neither intended nor foreseen by those who originally devised it. The same objectivity, however, characterizes the non-material elements of culture as well. Man invents a language and then finds that both his speaking and his thinking are dominated by its grammar. Man produces values and discovers that he feels guilt when he contravenes them. Man concocts institutions, which come to confront him as powerfully controlling and even menacing constellations of the external world. The relationship between man and culture is thus aptly illustrated by the tale of the sorcerer's apprentice. The mighty buckets, magically called out of nothingness by human fiat, are set in motion. From that point on they go about drawing water in accordance with an inherent logic of their own being that, at the very least, is less than completely controlled by their creator. It is possible, as happens in that story, that man may find an additional magic that will bring back under his control the vast forces he has unleashed upon reality. This power, though, is not identical with the one that first set these forces in motion. And, of course, it can also happen that man drowns in the floods that he himself has produced.

If culture is credited with the status of objectivity, there is a double meaning to this appellation. Culture is objective in that it confronts man as an assemblage of objects in the real world existing outside his own consciousness. Culture is there. But culture is also objective in that it may be experienced and apprehended, as it were, in company. Culture is there for everybody. This means that the objects of culture (again, both the material and non-material ones) may be shared with others. This distinguishes them sharply from any constructions of the subjective consciousness of the solitary individual. This is obvious when one compares a tool that belongs to the technology of a particular culture with some utensil, however interesting, that forms part of a dream. The objectivity of culture as shared facticity, though, is even more important to understand with reference to its non-material constituents. The individual may dream up any number of, say, institutional arrangements that might well be more interesting, perhaps even more functional, than the institutions actually recognized in his culture. As long as these sociological dreams, so to speak, are confined to the individual's own consciousness and are not recognized by others as at least empirical possibilities, they will exist only as shadowlike phantasmata. By contrast, the institutions of the individual's society, however much he may dislike them, will be real. In other words, the cultural world is not only collectively produced, but it remains real by virtue of collective recognition. To be in culture means to share in a particular world of objectivities with others.


Excerpted from THE SACRED CANOPY by Peter L. Berger. Copyright © 1967 Peter L. Berger. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. Religion and World-Construction,
2. Religion and World-Maintenance,
3. The Problem of Theodicy,
4. Religion and Alienation,
5. The Process of Secularization,
6. Secularization and the Problem of Plausibility,
7. Secularization and the Problem of Legitimation,
Appendix I. Sociological Definitions of Religion,
Appendix II. Sociological and Theological Perspectives,

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The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion 3.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
kant1066 on LibraryThing 2 hours ago
This book is an extension of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann¿s earlier book, ¿The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge¿ written in 1966, in which the authors begin with basic sociological assumptions about mental representations and how human beings come to know the world and form impressions of it. ¿The Sacred Canopy,¿ while heavily informed by the ideas in ¿The Social Construction of Reality,¿ was written only by Berger himself. The book is a thoroughly Marxist critique of religion with a dash of Freud thrown in for good measure. The Marxism comes from Berger¿s understanding of human consciousness. He emphasizes the dialectical nature of individual man and his relationship to culture and society. According to him, we can only ¿world-build¿ (or ¿cosmize,¿ to use his argot) through a process of constant internalization and externalization of distinct mental representations. Berger defines religion as a sacred form of world-building, an ¿audacious attempt to conceive of the entire universe as humanly significant¿ (p. 28). (Forget temporarily, as I had to, that to call religion a ¿sacred¿ form of world-building seems to very much beg the question.) He argues religion to be the oldest, most powerful legitimizing order which plays a central role in construing order and rationality in our lives, and therefore in maintaining reality because they are the only things that can provide sacred legitimation for this socially constructed reality. Thus religion makes permanent the temporary, transcendentalizes the immanent, sacralizes the profane, and ensures a nomological (that is, rational and law-based) rather than chaotic reality.Evil, death, injustice, and suffering can threaten the nomological world that is shored up by religious legitimation. However, theodicies minimize the threat to ¿nomos¿ by bestowing meaning on these things and by making them understandable in a larger epistemological scheme. Berger claims that religion is ultimately alienating, as it enforces the idea that the socially constructed world is not a human product, but rather a permanent product of divine construction; religion is, in other words, a source of false consciousness that perpetuates the idea that human beings had nothing to do with creating their social world. He also claims that the world is gradually becoming more secular. For exactly these reasons, secularization is paradoxically both de-alienating, while at the same time anomic and ridden with existential anxiety precisely because religion, according to Berger, has lost its legitimacy, having slowly been replaced in the industrial world with a materialistic-positivistic model for knowledge. In short, secularization allows people to realize that the world is their own, not that of a distant, supernatural God, and that our disconnection from this leaves us hanging, alone, in a world devoid of any meaning or order. Berger claims to break down the book into two parts, the first being the theoretical portion and the second providing the concrete, historical, empirical facts that support the theory. However, I found almost no substantive distinction in the level of theory used in the two parts. Both are highly theoretical and abstract, which is not to say that the text is difficult if afforded a careful reading. But the entire book is maintained on such a level of abstraction that it would be difficult to take any ¿applied¿ ideas away from it. This might have something to do with the fact that Berger recanted the central thesis of ¿The Sacred Canopy¿ about twenty years ago in the face of evidence that directly suggested that the boundaries of secularization and modernization were not necessarily coterminal. Also, for being published less than fifty years ago, the ideas here seem much, much older. Connecting the ideas of secularization, alienation, and social anomy ¿ which seem to me to the fundamental concept here ¿ go back to the nineteenth cent
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this book is extremely hard to read. it is repetetive and boring. it is bland and not remotely interesting to read. granted i am a college student, but i definatley would not 'read it for fun'